Sunday 16 October 2011

Relax in your favourite armchair and read a Romantic story ...

Is Harry Palmer a Romantic hero? A Romantic with a capital 'R', a part of the literary tradition of Rousseau and Wordsworth?

Well, that wasn't my first reaction when reading the novels, but it was what Fred Erisman read into his reading of Deighton's first six novels. And he shared this idea with other fans in the April 1977 edition of Armchair Detective.
Life before the Internet was an innocent age

I'd never seen a copy of this American magazine, but I made a serendipitous find on, where else, eBay! The Armchair Detective was a quarterly journal devoted to the appreciation of mystery, detective and suspense fiction. I write 'was', as it's now longer a going concern, having grown from simple fanzine produced on a mimeograph (Ed - there's one for the teenagers!) to a quarterly journal matching in quality the output of many of the more established literary papers. And then, sadly, gone. The reviews are scholarly, intensely researched and backed up by references (as this article is) and often - as in the case of the front cover - innovative in design.

Now, of course, fans of any genre of fiction or the arts are connected by the Internet, and everyone's a critic and a reviewer - we're spoilt for choice. This blog for example is a true antecedent of the cut-and-paste efforts of yesteryear and supports the tradition in the digital age.

Back to the article. Erisman's initial thesis approaching Deighton's novels is interesting: the spy as 'romantic', linked to the ideal of Romantic thought derived from Rousseau and Wordsworth. His thoughts are personal, intellectual, and he displays emotional individualism. He acts from personal principle rather than from expediency.

The first six novels, Erisman writes: "convey a sense of the aimless intricacy of an intrigue-ridden society, pervaded by obscurity and betryal." Within this world, the unnamed spy (Palmer) is, he says, "Deighton's answer to the problems posed to the individual by contemporary life." This is a spy seeking personal satisfaction and freedom, while doing his job; he is dissatisfied with the world. Palmer, Erisman guesses, is "a Thoureauvian questing after inward reality in a twentieth-century setting." That's a deep analysis one rarely sees in connection with Deighton's novels. The writer goes on to critically deconstruct Deighton's texts, looking at notions of friendship, love and deception within the novels and for the most part, what he presents are ways of viewing the characters that I for one hadn't considered before.

He quotes a lovely perspective by another critic, James D'Anna on how the character epitomised the moral duplicity and uncertainty at the heart of the Cold War: 
"the dominant colour of the Cold War is neither black nor white, but grey ... the issues in the East-West conflict are as blurred as a defective television tube."
Overall, this review provides something new by placing Deighton's hero within the pantheon of Romantic heros. One wonder if that was what Len had at the back of his mind when he developed the character?


The cover design was at first a puzzle for me as I wrote on this blog. As eagle-eyed readers have commented - and thanks for their input - the car is a Jensen, and therefore it's clearly a reference to a line by Harvey Newbegin, 'Harry Palmer's' old spy pal in Billion-Dollar Brain, on the day the former met the latter:
'The first time I ever saw him was in Frankfurt. He was sitting in a new white Jensen sports car covered in mud, with a sensational blond, sensational. He was wearing very old clothes, smoking a Gauloises cigarette and listening to Beethoven on the car radio and I thought, "Oh boy, just how many ways can you be a snob simultaneously".'
I didn't spot it, as it's been a while since I've read Billion-Dollar Brain all the way through, and the image didn't look much like Frankfurt, but that clearly seems to be the reference and I should have spotted it. My bad! Well done to the blog readers who pointed out my error 


  1. see the entry for "Ipcress Man" in The Len Deighton Companion

  2. Sorry if I was unclear

    You were puzzled by the meaning of the cover illustration to the Armchair Detective article.

    It's a reference to the first sighting of "Ipcress Man" as described by Harvey Newbegin in Billion Dollar Brain.

    I was directing you to that description in the LD Companion.